Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII is the property of Square-Enix. No profit is sought from this work.
There were good days and bad days and today was not exactly going all that well. Zack hoisted Cloud up on his back and took another careful step into the water. "Hang on tight, Spike," he said, tightening his hold on the boy's knees. Just to be safe, he bent down a bit more, shifting his balance so Cloud would rest on him instead of sliding off. "We'll be out of this rain in no time."
Cloud's arms slipped loose from around Zack's neck. Zack made a lurching grab and managed to grip one limp wrist to his chest. The other arm dangled near his hip. Zack froze midstream and tossed a grin back over his shoulder. "Oh, you want to swim, do you? You are one gutsy guy, Cloud, I'll give you that." He shifted to settle Cloud properly into place before taking one careful, shuffling step.
"Now most people, swimming in a river is a big enough thrill," he said, "but a flooded one? In the middle of a rainstorm? You are one brave nut." Zack shook the water out of his hair but the rain was still pouring so it didn't make much difference. Water kept streaming off Cloud's spikes and down Zack's neck and that was not helping anything.
"Well," Zack choked out, looking around, "it's been a while since we stopped for a proper bath anyway, right? Guess I must have been reeking so…" He lifted one sodden boot up from the riverbed, trying to tug his bootlaces free from the shifting debris. "So I can't blame you for wanting to make me wash. Whoa!" He straightened up to let a large branch float by. "Shiva, Cloud, you're a braver man than me."
He bent over again, his face almost in the murky water. Cloud's legs dangled down so Zack could get a better grip. He looked back and caught a glimpse of Cloud's blank face and the black skies above. "Cloud, you and me are going to have to talk about this primping, preening side that you've been hiding. I mean, signing me up for a mud bath?" Zack heaved and took another step into the silted water. He couldn't see his feet for all the mud the current was churning up.
His next step was shaky and he stood wavering on one leg as the current tried its best to carry him off. "Cloud, you little thrill junkie, let's say next time we do this, we use a raft, 'kay?" One foot before the other, Zack walked, fighting the stream. It was nothing for a SOLDIER, really. Heck, Cloud was handling it just fine so it was no trouble at all for Zack.
One more step and his belt rose above the water level. Two more and he was struck by just how soggy his drawers were. Three more and his baggy uniform pants were sticking too close to his skin. He lost count how many more steps it took after that but he kind of liked the squelchy sound his boots made on the sodden riverbank. He grinned up at Cloud.
"Sorry to disappoint you, buddy, but bath time's over. And I didn't even use soap!" He leapt onto firmer ground, sinking into his own insoles. It felt like there was mud between his toes. "Wouldn't happen to have a towel handy, would you?"
Cloud did not make a sound. It was definitely one of those days.
Zack smiled and soldiered on. "S'alright. I think we're almost out of the rain anyhow." He straightened just a little, not trusting Cloud on his own feet yet with the speed they needed. Zack scrubbed his wet hair off his forehead and took a look around. Unless his mind was playing tricks on him, the woods did not seem to have changed much. He brightened considerably.
"I know where we could get a towel!" he said, marching forward. "If we take a right on this trail, we'll end up in Gongaga! Remember everything I told you?" Zack grinned and almost bounced under Cloud's weight, not the least bit bothered that the boy did not answer.
"You're going to love it there, Cloud! It's bright and warm and my mother makes the best mango chow you've ever had. Hey, wait a sec, you're a mountain boy. Have you ever actually had mango chow? Oh, you're gonna love it! See, what you do is take a half-ripe mango and cut into slivers and…" Zack could almost see the sunshine in the distance through the grey haze of rain. "You toss it all up with lots of salt and some Gongagan Monster pepper and knock yourself out. It's all sour and salty and hot at the same time." Zack leapt forward, almost salivating.
The sunshine spread over him, the heat a reminder of better days, when the sun had been burning but Zack had not been soaked and clammy. "So how 'bout it, Spike?" There was no answer. "Come on, Cloud," Zack teased, "aren't you ready to meet your in-laws?"
Cloud turned his head and whimpered. Zack stopped. "Okay, okay, it would be a bit of a shock for my mother if I showed up with a guy draped all over me like this."
Cloud made no other sound. Zack looked down the gravel trail. He could go to Gongaga. It would take a couple days hard running but it had been way too long since he'd seen his folks. A little way out, the black skies opened up, promising endless blue. Zack could almost smell Gongaga on the air, taste it even.
He swallowed. He couldn't stop there, not now with Cloud sick and the military hot on their heels. Zack sighed. "Okay, Cloud, you win." He shored Cloud up and turned to the left, grinning into the downpour that had overtaken them. "Straight on to Midgar."